At the conclusion of Supervisor Sharon Bulova's recent town meeting to address "Gang Awareness," police showed a video with gang initiations, beatings, and even Brenda Pas, a murder victim, being kicked before she was killed. The video riled up the crowd at Little Run Elementary School.
"Why don't you just go in and arrest them?" cried one man, after a tape from the Mara Salvatrucha, or "MS-13" gang in Fairfax County, showed off tattoos and hand signs.
"There's a thing here called the United States Constitution," one officer responded.
Others complained that all the gang members in the tapes and slides the officers had were Hispanic, despite the officers’ claims that most of the gangs were multiracial.
"Why don't you show slides of them?" one woman asked.
The meeting was an attempt to gain interest in a gang task force that Bulova was starting in the Braddock District. School Board member Tessie Wilson was also involved, as well as Del. Chap Petersen (D-37th), Sen.-elect Jeannemarie Devolites (R-34th), and School Board at-large-elect member Steve Hunt. The cafeteria full of concerned neighbors.
"We're going to focus on some of the specific gang activities," Bulova said, but she added revitalization and traffic solutions as by-products of her task force as well.
"In some fashion, they're all related," Bulova said.
Fairfax County Police Gang Unit officers Kenny Compher and Mike Porter illustrated their gang experience with a slide show. Ninety-five percent of the gang unit's time is spent investigating the nationwide gang, MS-13.
"Fairfax County has the second largest MS-13 presence," Compher said. "This gang is now a national threat to the FBI."
Although the MS-13 gang is the largest gang in Fairfax County, with 1,500 members, the officers talked of other gangs in the area, as well. Names of other area gangs included the Latin Kings, Gangster Disciples, Tiny Rascal Gangsters (TRG), Folk Nation and Central Killers. Officers talked about a murder at Marshall High School committed by TRG in 1998, a gang with Asian influence.
"These people were arrested in 20 hours" after the murder, Compher said.
The chronology of the gang unit began in 1993 with Compher being the only officer on the squad. It enlarged to a three-man unit in 1994 and rose to 12 officers in 1997. The unit was almost cut entirely from the budget in 1998, before the Marshall killing.
"The Board of Supervisors already cut us out of the budget, then reinstated us," Compher said.
The officers laid out a plan for the parents attending the task force meeting. This included identifying gang symbols, clothing, colors and drawings. For example, one pant leg rolled up with the other down is one symbol.
"Our Folk Nation gang members love to do this," said Compher.
The question "why gangs?" was more difficult to pinpoint. Reasons the officers gave included status, money, drugs, girls or guys, and the adrenaline rush.
"There's a lot of girls that like that bad-boy gang image. There's a lot of guys that like that bad-girl image. Gang members do not believe they have a future," Compher said.
Little Run PTA president Meagan McLaughlin wanted to know how teens could escape the wrath of gangs.
"Just walk away," said Compher, but McLaughlin wasn't convinced.
"Walking away is not going to work," McLaughlin said. "They'll be harassed and picked on until they join."
Compher said that gangs aren't too persistent because there are others that want to join, but he admitted they're relentlessness.
"Sometimes you're going to have to move," he said.
Petersen outlined a few bills he is trying to get through the state legislature. One was to make it a crime if three or more people were committing a crime and penalties would be added to the initial charges. One bill he proposed would link asset forfeiture and money laundering penalties involved with crimes traced to gangs.
"This is legislation that will be proposed," Petersen said.
Jose Vanegas represented Barrios Unidos, which means "united neighborhoods." He works with teens in Falls Church and didn't accept the police information.
"What we're seeing is something completely different than what we've been reading. We always had gangs," Vanegas said.
Little Run school resource officer Brian Boykin wasn't convinced that arrests would solve the problem, either.
"It's just not a crime-prevention issue. Everything from education to interdiction," he said.
The four R's the officers recommended were recognize, report, record and remove, when confronting gang signs.
Mark Emery, with the Partnership For Youth, was pushing for an afternoon program, to keep teens active from 2:30-6 p.m. Emery is hosting the first of five regional forums to gain support for this after school program on Feb. 4, 6:30-9 p.m., at Robinson Secondary School.